Without melodrama, self-indulgence, or overreach, Sarah Polley has made the first great film of 2007; a film of such maturity, depth, and quiet power that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Bergman. No one’s handing Polley the great Swede’s reins quite yet, of course, but her Away From Her, as stunning a debut as I’ve seen in years, puts her on just such a course. Given its subject matter, Alzheimer’s disease, any number of things could have gone wrong — too much, too little, slight hesitation, or even a failure of nerve at the moment of impact — but somehow, against all logic and good sense, this 28-year-old actress has written and directed a flawless excursion few filmmakers twice her age would dare attempt. Where has she been, this shy young Canadian? She shined in Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, and was acceptable in the Dawn of the Dead remake, but I can’t admit to having seen her in much else. It’s clear she’s picked up a trick or two from the director of the first two films, Atom Egoyan (he acts as executive producer on this one), but just as surely, finds her own voice, as if something in her youth prepared her for just this very thing. The confidence of Away From Her is astonishing, really, and because I hadn’t expected this level of enjoyment, the experience was that much sweeter.
At the core of the piece are two actors at the top of their game. Julie Christie plays Fiona, and while we expect her to glide with peerless abandon, it is Gordon Pinsent as Grant who claims top honors. As the confused, yet strikingly calm, husband losing his wife to the ravages of illness, he never strikes the wrong chord, nor does he beg for our sympathy. He’s a good man in the sense that he’s enduring the unimaginable with a remarkable stoicism, yet he’s granted the necessary shading to make him real. While we never get the full back story (bits and pieces in artfully constructed flashbacks and a spark of conversation or two), we do come to understand that during this 40-year marriage, he’s been less than noble in ways wholly understood by the female persuasion. As a professor, he was accomplished, ambitious, and in many ways a good provider, but he seemed, like so many of his gender, to be ill-suited for the demands of true partnership. Selfishly, predictably, he strayed again and again (who else but with the wide-eyed students in his charge?), even though it’s never spelled out in the sort of stump speech we’ve come to expect from lesser works. The scenes in which we learn about the nature of the relationship are handled with such care and dignity that they seemed almost foreign. Yes, I thought, this is how people talk to each other when no one is looking. Guns are not necessarily drawn.
Fiona’s life, in so many tragic ways, is now over, but before the move to her new home (the sort of community living that is, and shall remain, impossible to endure), brief flashes of memory tease forth her own acceptance of what has been the only real love affair she’s ever known. “People want to be in love every day,” she sighs. “What a liability.” It’s a profound understanding of what distinguishes reality from fantasy, but more than that, it redefines love itself in ways far too few of us ever consider. And what a burden – a sorrowful, contemptible one at that — to expect joy with every waking sunrise, as if it could be poured along with our morning coffee. Regardless of duration, but certainly over a period of decades, one had better have a means to cope with sagging fortunes and extinguished passion or face continual disillusionment. Weighing the options at hand — limited as they must have been, given the young age at which she married — she chose to overlook the transgressions and secure a difficult balance. Some are able, some are not, but it’s as close to living honestly as one can hope to achieve. Fiona, then, may be construed as a pathetic soul who sacrificed happiness for security, but it is the height of absurdity — and condescension — to think she wasn’t fully aware of the costs. Were there not good times, after all?
The contemplative account of this marriage, and the complications that result from life’s cruelest trick of the mind, may appear familiar at first blush, but Polley handles it all with a heroic restraint. Even the soundtrack feels appropriately unintrusive (you never feel emotionally assaulted), and her keen eye infuses every shot with the sense that we are exactly where we need to be. The style — and it always feels as if it’s the sort that has been fashioned over a large body of work — touches on the cold and the somber, but not so much as to be bloodless. Instead, there’s a great deal of life in these scenes, but only that which comes about gracefully, as if allowed to find its way rather than being jump started by impatience. We get several Bergman-esque close-ups, though not as a means of manipulation. Instead, these are mere invitations to the familiar; loving and personal, but wonderfully delicate.
Such photographic considerations block out all other concerns (though not so much as to keep this from being a universal tale), but are most productive as a means to highlight Christie’s still-remarkable beauty. She’s surely, and by her own design, one of our most underused talents, but here, she’s at her best. Moreover, this becomes one of those rare performances where a stunning physical appearance appears to lack all vanity. And despite portraying a woman slowly losing her mind, Christie never plays to the cheap seats. Younger, less capable thespians have much to learn from such a woman, especially when seeking a vital source for the ever-instructive dictum of “less is more.” It’s the kind of part that wins awards, but Christie takes it in the opposite, less pandering direction.
Much of the movie takes place at the care facility, where Grant comes to see Fiona on a fairly frequent basis. He had been denied a single visit during the first 30 days (patients need to adjust, they say), enough time for Fiona to embark on a relationship with Aubrey (Michael Murphy), who is both wheelchair bound and mute. It’s not a love affair, per se, but perhaps Fiona’s first opportunity to finally know exactly where she stands with a man. “He doesn’t confuse me,” she says. In a sense, it’s love itself in the raw, based entirely on pure need. And yet, Grant must watch this interaction from afar, as Fiona knows precious little of what she is doing, and he’s not at all in a position to judge diverted loyalties. During such visits, Grant chats with Kristy (Kristen Thomson), a member of the staff who is but one of the many well-drawn figures on the margins. Even her exchanges, which would appear to be fraught with the danger of being too obligatory, spin with utter perfection. It helps that Thomson is a natural, but more than that, she’s not one-dimensionally wise as we’d expect her to be. There’s pain there, but nothing entirely visible, which once again demonstrates Polley’s wise decision to let us draw our own conclusions.
Even Marian (Olympia Dukakis), Aubrey’s aggrieved wife, is more than just a plot point along Grant’s journey. Yes, the two eventually sleep together, but the beauty of the script allows the result to flow from entirely believable moments. And rather than ramble on about their shared loneliness, despair, and grief, they accept with tired resignation the obvious fact that there’s little else each can do to help deal with the matter at hand. Again, it’s a love (or, “pragmatic bonding”) based on unfiltered need. We’re not even sure Marian likes Grant, but given the context, does it really matter? Forced to explain our actions on any number of affairs or liaisons, few of us would be very articulate (or admirable). We do what we know how to do, until we decide to do something else, or are forced by circumstance. Sadly, that’s about as complicated as we get sometimes.
Eventually, there’s an acceptance that the final stages have begun, though only Grant can fully appreciate the implications. Sure, Fiona may in fact have an enlightened moment or two, but these too will yield to darkness. They share a moment of closeness that mindfully keeps sentimentality at bay, though one is uncertain how Polley and her cast pulled it off. But it works so well as to be seamless. After all, this isn’t a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end, nor is it about highs and lows and the requisite shouts and stomps in between. Lacking last-minute reversals, tears of regret, or anything approaching redemption, Away From Her slips away in a whisper. And even when we reflect on the theft of this woman’s mind (surely the most horrific affliction we encounter), there’s not so much regret and waste as an encounter with additional profundity. What, exactly, is yours alone to experience; as you are, as you were, or what you hope to be.